By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Navy veteran Ken Rigby of Jeannette suffered from multiple sclerosis and died at 43 "after a painful and agonizing course," in the words of his wife's attorney.
That slow, sad end is at the heart of a wrongful death lawsuit against the United States that went to trial yesterday in U.S. District Court.
Rigby's widow, Cynthia Rigby, says doctors at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Oakland mistakenly treated her husband's illness with a volatile drug that ended up killing him in 1997.
The government, represented by the civil division of the U.S. attorney's office, counters that the course of treatment was not improper and that the doctors are not guilty of medical malpractice.
At issue is a drug called ticlopidine hydrochloride -- the brand name is Ticlid -- that is used to keep blood from clotting too much and causing strokes.
In addition to being diagnosed with MS, Rigby had other health problems, including thrombocytosis, a condition in which the body produces too many platelets that make blood clot. Doctors at the VA hospital gave him Ticlid for it after a leg operation in September 1997. In December of that year he died of multiple organ failure.
Yesterday, Dr. Stephen Sacks, a neurologist in Norristown, Pa., said Rigby should have been treated with aspirin, which is also used to thin blood, instead of Ticlid.
"It's dangerous in regard to the fact that it has potential lethal side effects," he said in a videotaped deposition introduced by Cynthia Rigby's attorney, Carl Harvison. "You basically don't have a good idea of what it might do. I wouldn't feel comfortable using it without being extremely careful...Was he really a good risk for going on that drug?"
The VA apparently thought he was, although government attorneys Mike Colville and Philip O'Connor would not comment on the specifics of the case.
Ken Rigby suffered plenty in his short life, Harvison said. A chief petty officer aboard a nuclear submarine in the 1970s, his initial blood disorder may have been caused by exposure to radiation, the attorney said. He also mangled his foot badly in a shore-leave motorcycle accident. Then, in 1988, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and soon after retired from the Navy on disability.
In September 1997, he had an angioplasty at the VA to treat pain in his leg and was discharged two days after the operation. Because of his blood disorder, he was put on aspirin. At some point, however, the drug was switched to Ticlid.
"I have no idea why that was done," said Sacks.
Cynthia Rigby said she was told nothing about the new drug or its risks.
In October 1997, Ken Rigby collapsed at home and was rushed to the VA hospital. His kidneys and liver had failed. He was diagnosed with a condition in which the blood was so thin that it couldn't clot normally, and both sides acknowledge that Ticlid induced it.
"I don't think there's any question that the drug caused his death," said Harvison. "The question is why was he given the drug?"
Cynthia Rigby said a nurse at the hospital told her it should never have been prescribed.
"At that point I was just numb," she said. "I had never thought it was negligence."
On Dec. 13, 1997, Ken Rigby died.
Rigby and her family are asking for $1.3 million in economic losses. The nonjury trial before U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose is expected to last most of the week.
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